To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The great French demographic mystery

France in 1800 was a power that still could rule the world. Though Britain since 1763 had usurped the preeminent position of France among the great powers, the Treaty of Paris did not remove the foundations of French power. Only after a titanic half-century struggle could the Pax Britannica be allowed to emerge, during which a host of nations had failed repeatedly to shatter the French state. England rather found herself threatened with destruction by Napoleon Bonaparte, as the French dictator loosed his armies upon the Continent and annexed lands from Catalonia to the Baltic shore. 

Vast in cultivable territory, protected by seas and mountains, and positioned at the heart of a rich ecosystem of cultural interaction, French power nonetheless would not have been possible but for the historical population advantage under its feet. The innovative use of mass conscription, for instance, enabled France to marshall its superior population resources as an instrument of war in 1793, ensuring the survival of the First Republic and the spectacular expulsion of Coalition armies on multiple fronts. 

If one were to examine the demographic figures of 1800, one might understand the impression of European powers that France must have had at its disposal an apparently inexhaustible supply of soldiers. France of 1800 contained within her modern-day borders a population of over 26 million, roughly equal to Tokugawa Japan’s and significantly exceeded only by those of China and Maratha India among all contiguous political entities. To this was added four million from annexed territories west of the Rhine, as well as almost 20 million more in French-controlled puppet states throughout Italy, Switzerland and Holland. Peninsular Spain, Prussia and Great Britain meanwhile had only 10 million each at this time, whilst Imperial Russia contained only 35 million in total, including over 21 million in Russia proper. The world as a whole contained one billion people, of whom 175 million populated Europe, and within Europe itself 15 percent lived inside the modern-day borders of metropolitan France. It is clear that whilst France was united, mastery of the world remained within her reach.

Yet there was to be no final victory. French power was permanently broken in 1815 after decades during which the great powers studied their mistakes and combined together their own manpower reserves. French borders were driven back and England, with her Channel never breached, survived to embark upon her imperial century. Had France’s population advantage remained, Paris might have justified the fear with which England continued to regard her for the next century.

However, by World War I its advantage was all but lost, and this remains the most compelling question in all the demographic history of France. As the advent of the industrial age dramatically decreased mortality and improved living standards, the population of the European continent nearly tripled to 450 million by 1914, before crossing 700 million by 1990. Had France’s population grown at a similar rate, it would have neared 80 million by 1914 and surpassed 120 million by the Cold War’s end.

This was not to be: throughout the “long nineteenth-century” the inhabitants of France only increased by a third, to a population of only 40 million by World War I. By then the population of Great Britain had quadrupled to 40 million whilst the population of Prussian-dominated Germany had far surpassed France to 65 million. This disparity, which had become an obsession for prewar French lawmakers, widened further by World War II, with Britain outnumbering France and Italy now equal in strength; even the recapture of Alsace-Lorraine had failed to lift the French population to eight percent of the Continent’s. Again, the nation was forced to contend with the gravity of its fall from the sun, as numerically superior enemies repeatedly charged into it to devastating effect. In fact, had it not been for the acquisition of nuclear weapons and an unusually dramatic postwar baby boom which saw France’s population regain parity with that of the United Kingdom (where they remain equal to this day at about 65 million each), France’s future as a great power might have slipped away altogether and relegated it to a regional status akin to that of Italy, another former great power.

These are centuries of gradual decline, punctuated by five republics and correlated almost perfectly with the incremental loss of France’s once-mighty relative advantage in population. This attests to both the critical importance of population for the maintenance of national power, and the great mystery which underpins the end of centuries of French military hegemony. What could account for the unique trajectory and relative failure of French population growth, when its neighbors doubled and tripled in size even as they shed millions of emigrants to the New World? 

Compounding matters is the fact that the French population is recorded as having reached 33 million by 1850, which suggests that half of its population growth took place between Napoleon and Napoleon III. Even the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871 removed only about one million from metropolitan France. Finally, a slower urbanization rate indicated a smaller rural migration to the cities, which presumably reduced the displacement and overcrowded poverty that most often encouraged nineteenth-century emigration. In the absence of emigration, relatively low fertility rates must bear the overwhelming responsibility for low French population growth.

Indeed, fertility rates for 1900 reveal France to have the lowest birth-rate in Europe, and indeed the only one at only three births per woman; Britain, the world’s most industrialized society, was by that point at about 3.5 births per woman, while the German Empire was at nearly five and the Russian Empire surpassing seven. French policymakers were no doubt aware that fertility lay at the heart of its population woes, yet the disparity in births would persist until the late 1920s. Only in the wake of World War II would France begin to experience any significant population growth at all, when birth-rates rose by 50 percent during five years of war to their highest levels since the nineteenth-century (the reasons behind this are nearly as inexplicable; it might as well be regarded as a second Great French Demographic Mystery).

Industrialization and urbanization, the traditional destroyers of birth-rates, are almost certainly not entirely to blame in the case of France, which industrialized later and urbanized far slower than its northern neighbors. At the same time, it can be reasoned that the birth disparity between France and her neighbors did not precede the industrial age. According to a 1985 comparative study by the historical demographer Tony Wrigley, marital fertility in France remained consistent with her neighbors prior to the nineteenth-century. What, then, could have led to such relatively low birth rates, if not industrialization or ancient habit?

Wrigley’s own demographic work appears to reinforce the population figures of France at various points in time. He attests that French fertility by 1840 was only about 66 percent of the level in 1800, before dropping to 50 percent of that level by 1900. This disproportionate drop between 1800 to 1840 allows us to triangulate the exact interval at which French fertility led its population growth to stall. If, assuming the birth-rate in France in 1800 matched the 6-7 per-woman average for western Europe at the time, a drop to 66 percent by 1840 would result in a fall in the average number of births per woman from six to about four births per woman by 1840, after which it gradually declines to three by 1900 (after a brief period of increase during the rule of Napoleon III). 

Wrigley details an unusual increase in both the average age of marriage and the proportion of unmarried individuals within eighteenth-century France. This coincided with a considerable rise in illegitimate and premarital births, after which the rate of marriage began to increase even as life expectancy rose by 10 years and mortality declined overall. Wrigley suggests that French couples endeavored to limit births to remain consistent with these diminished levels of mortality. This would remain consistent with the behavior of populations in industrializing states, wherein decreased child mortality lessened the need for women to maximize their number of births to increase the probability their children would survive to adulthood.

While this might explain why Frenchwomen elected to bear far fewer children during this period, it leaves unanswered the question of why mortality declined, and why both life expectancy and the average age of marriage increased in preindustrial France. It must be noted, of course, that if French fertility indeed averaged about six births per woman in 1800, the earlier trends in marriage must have made little effect upon the overall number of annual French births. Nonetheless, it is as if France at the turn of the 19th century, in the absence of industrialization, had somehow begun to experience the social consequences of an industrial society, whether in life expectancy or child mortality. Therefore, as they occupy the start point of this demographic transition, the First French Republic and the First French Empire are both crucial for analysis.

And so, we return once more to Napoleon I. During the Napoleonic and Revolutionary eras, France was subject to a host of frequently violent and radical reforms that the rest of the Continent simply never experienced, notwithstanding the influence of the Napoleonic Code and other such reforms introduced by the French invasions. It is likely that in their efforts to overturn the traditional social relationships of French society, political revolutionaries disrupted the natural incentives for childbirth in a preindustrial society. One might recall the anti-Church campaigns, but such a disruption is more likely to have been institutionalized by Napoleon, who reversed or mitigated many of the more fanatical gestures of the Jacobin regime. 

One particular law in the Napoleonic Code comes to mind: Napoleon ordained that an estate must be divided by the number of children in the family, and that, as “protected heirs,” children cannot be disinherited. This law, by standing in contrast to a more traditional custom by which the estate is entrusted in its entirety to the eldest heir, presents a rational incentive to limit families. The more children one has, the more one’s assets would need to be divided, which might diminish the desire to produce more prospective heirs. Of course, the extent to which this law would hinder the rural peasantry (the majority of the French population) is questionable, as is the influence of such a law on family-planning behavior.

Yet, as it pertains to what might be the greatest demographic mystery in the history of modern France, any potential explanation is worthy of consideration. All mysteries invite speculation, especially if even the most researched explanations remain unsatisfactory. Indeed, while it remains unclear to me why the French birth-rate slumped in the decades after the First French Republic, I am reminded of the disparity between the Russian birth-rates before and after World War II, or the German birth-rates before and after World War I. It might be that reproductive behaviors change dramatically and permanently as a consequence of destructive social upheavals or calamitous events. What is fundamentally unchanged is the mysterious nature of the French demographic anomaly throughout the “long 19th century.” A nation that once could conquer the world was consigned to a fate of gradual decline in relation to its neighbors. France, in straddling the fertile rim of the Eurasian continent, was certainly promised a greater population than it ultimately received. Its demographic story over the last two centuries contains the same mystic quality as its historical fall from hegemony; once it was first among the great powers, now it threatens to slip through the cracks altogether. There are few regions in the world whose populations have only tripled since 1700, and none so large as France; demography, if anything, had stolen her fate. The demographic history of France’s lost century thus deserves closer attention and should be regarded as among the greatest of modern mysteries.


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